Building winning culture takes time

ORIOLES FOCUS

May 09, 2004|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

The Orioles raised a few eyebrows when they pulled their new manager out of the New York Yankees' organization, and maybe that was the idea.

The fans needed to know that there were truly dynamic changes taking place in the Orioles' universe. The players needed to know that there would be a new culture in the clubhouse. The rest of the American League East needed to know that those 12 or 13 wins they were depending on every year from the fourth-place Orioles were going to be a little harder to come by.

Mission accomplished? Not yet.

The Orioles are a more exciting team - there is no doubt about that. The addition of Miguel Tejada, Rafael Palmeiro and Javy Lopez gave them the kind of star power the team had lacked since the heady AL Championship Series seasons of 1996 and '97. The arrival of several young, promising pitchers added intrigue and apprehension, so they got the drama part right.

The winning culture may take a little longer. The club created some immediate excitement by winning three of five games against the rival Boston Red Sox, but the Orioles' record against some of the lesser teams leaves room to wonder if Lee Mazzilli is going to need more time for a complete attitude adjustment.

"I think we've been very exciting," he said, "but I think we could have a better record. We could have won some more games, but that's part of the game. I think we've played well and guys are a little ticked off when we don't win."

They have been entertaining, especially against the Red Sox and Toronto, but they entered the weekend with just three victories in eight games against Tampa Bay and the rebuilding Cleveland Indians. Those are type of opponents a team has to fatten up on.

In this case, it hasn't been for lack of opportunities. The Orioles have lost some games in the late innings and missed several chances to generate the kind of late-inning magic that carries over from game to game and allows a team to win by intimidation in clutch situations.

The loss to Chicago on Wednesday is a great example. The Orioles had struggling reliever Billy Koch on the ropes in the ninth inning. Trailing by two runs, they loaded the bases and had Lopez at the plate with no outs.

Koch, who nearly gave it up in the ninth inning on Monday night, went 1-0 to Lopez and it looked like the Orioles were on the verge of an uplifting comeback victory.

Didn't happen. Lopez tried to pull a pitch down and away and lifted a lazy fly ball to left-center. The Orioles got a run on the sacrifice fly, but two pitches later, Jay Gibbons grounded into a force and struggling Luis Matos soon followed.

In short, they let Koch off the hook when he was begging to get beat.

Sorry to throw the "Y" word out at this point, but it can't be helped. It was the kind of game the Yankees come back and win.

"I can tell you one thing," Mazzilli said. "Everyone in the dugout said, `We're not going to lose this game.' "

Of course, it's not only about refusing to lose. It's about knowing how to grab a fading team and squeeze it until it pops.

"Absolutely, and we didn't get it done that night," Mazzilli added. "But it can't get done every time ... and I can tell you, the Yankees didn't get it done every time either."

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